Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sermon: Faith: A Matter of Love

Grace Presbyterian Church
August 28, 2016, Pentecost 15C
Hebrews 13:1-8, 14-16

Faith: A Matter of Love

I don’t know how much any of you remember about your education. I mean your education going back to elementary school or even high school. I only remember small bits and pieces here and there. Now I’m not talking about extracurricular things that happened in school, but the educational substance, the things you were actually supposed to learn in class. I’m not saying I have forgotten all that I learned, only that I don’t have much memory of the specific moment of learning it; it’s just part of the general wash of information burbling about in my brain.
There is one part of my education that, for whatever reason, I very specifically remember being instructed on: the construction of a paragraph, in particular the function of a topic sentence.
The memory is strong. Very clearly I can hear the instruction to start a paragraph with a topic sentence, and to follow that sentence with evidence to support the claim made in that sentence, or possibly further instruction or information following from that sentence. I also have pretty strong recollection of being taught that the topic sentence should ideally be strong and concise, as direct a statement as you can possibly make.
Coming to the thirteenth and final chapter of the book of Hebrews makes me wonder if its author was in those writing classes with me, or somehow received the same instruction.
In the past few weeks of sermons from this sometimes-perplexing book, we have observed that at times the book reads as much like a sermon as like a letter. This is not only because of its serious theological content and rhetorical style, but also because it is missing some of the typical structures and components of the letters we typically find in scripture. If you go back to the first chapter of the book, for example, you’ll see that there is no greeting, something that is found in every other epistle in the New Testament – whether from Paul, as most of these letters are headed, or in a couple of cases from Peter. The epistles attributed to John are structured a little differently, but aside from 1 John they also contain some kind of formally addressed greeting. But not Hebrews.
However, this final chapter of Hebrews is the place where the book is at its most letter-like. For one thing, the end of the chapter does contain some of the formal final salutation structures we see in other biblical letters. For another, the chapter follows a rhetorical pattern common to other epistles, in which the letter concludes with some final instructions and exhortations to the epistle’s recipients. Something very much like that happens here.
In this case, these final instructions are structured in a way that demonstrates something of that paragraph-writing structure I experienced back in high school. The instructions our preacher/author leaves in this final section can, when read clearly, be seen to derive from the principal instruction, or “topic sentence,” found in the very first verse of this chapter:
Let mutual love continue.”
 It’s hard to get more direct than that. You love one another? Good. Keep doing it. Keep showing love to one another. Keep doing love to one another. You have loved one another: “let mutual love continue.” After all that the Hebrews preacher has said and taught in the letter-cum-sermon, the final instruction comes down to this.
Indeed, you could argue that the rest of the chapter hangs upon this command. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” as verse 2 says? Certainly a way to show love. Verse 3: “Remember those in prison”? Again showing love. Empathy and compassion for those suffering torturing; respecting and honoring marriage; don’t let your desires be consumed by money; these are all things that can be traced back to that basic command.
There is another really good topic sentence later, in verse 8. It might look as though the preacher has moved on to a different topic (or perhaps a different paragraph), but we can also see it in light of verse 1’s command, in this case as a truth that enables us to continue in mutual love towards one another. We can continue in love because “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
Because we have a savior whose love for us, whose grace towards us, whose intercession for us never ceases; we can love one another, we can love those around us, we can love as that unchanging Jesus Christ has loved us. The love we know from Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The redemption we have from Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever – it isn’t yanked out from under us, it isn’t dependent on our “earning” it in any way, it doesn’t go away in the hard times. The forgiveness we have through Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. There will never come a Sunday when the Assurance of Pardon is excluded from the service, or is somehow altered to say “nope, sorry, you blew it too badly this time” – the forgiveness we have through Christ is constant, undying, unquenchable; the same yesterday, today, and forever. The hope we have through Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, not to be quenched by floods or suffering or fires or cancer or anything the world can throw at us.
The preacher has a few other things to say as well. Returning to a theme already expressed earlier in the sermon, he reminds his hearers or readers that the home we look forward to is not an earthly one, but that is to come, a lasting city, a heavenly city, one in the unending presence of the Holy One. Taken with what has come before in this passage – the command to love, the undying constancy of God – there’s really only one response: harking back to the previous chapter’s message on worship with reverence and awe, in verse fifteen we are reminded to praise God. Even there, though, we can’t rest on that – that’s not all; we get one more reminder not to “neglect to do good and to share what you have”; in essence, one more reminder to “let mutual love continue.”
With a few last words, the sermon/letter concludes, including a note in verse 22 that “I have written to you briefly”; I’m not sure how his readers or listeners would have felt about that claim. But in this letter, brief or not, our preacher has sought to encourage his readers to persevere in faith, pointing to their ancestors in the faith for encouragement, and reminded them of the awe and reverence due to the God they – and we – worship. And at the last the preacher brings forth the most basic and yet most significant instruction, to “let mutual love continue.”
Don’t miss the significance of that last word; continue. This wasn’t a case in which the preacher had to upbraid his audience for their failure to live into the love with which Christ loved us (as Paul often had to do in his letters). “Let mutual love continue” – keep doing what you are already doing, and go beyond.
I don’t think the Hebrews preacher would have to change his instruction much were he (or she) writing this letter/sermon to the saints of Grace Presbyterian Church, circa 2016. Having been to evenings at St. Francis House and Family Promise, fellowship time after Sunday services, a Christmas and a couple of Easters, and days like yesterday’s Service of Witness to the Resurrection and the fellowship after, I dare the Hebrews preacher to claim that love doesn’t live here, and I have no doubt that the Hebrews preacher could absolutely write to our congregation, “Let mutual love continue.” Keep on doing what you’re doing, and go beyond.
Really, that could be our charge every Sunday. Let mutual love continue. Keep doing what we’re doing, and go beyond. Living as we are in the undying, unshakable, unquenchable love of Christ, how can we do any other?
For mutual love; for Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#645                  Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above
#667                  When Morning Gilds the Skies
#267                  Come, Christians, Join to Sing
#306                  Blest Be the Tie That Binds

"Do not neglect to show hospitality..."

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